By Francine Prose
304 pp. $26.99
Reviewed by Joseph Peschel
You'd think a writer as good as Francine Prose could take a children's musical about a monkey and make an adult comedy out of it. That's what Prose attempts in her latest novel, Mister Monkey - which is also the title of the musical. Prose tries some social satire with talk of evolution, as we watch scenes from the play from the perspective of several characters - actors, audience, and the author of the children's book on which the musical is based.
But no one likes this production. Not the actors. Not the audience. Not even the guy who wrote the book. In this stage flop, poachers in Africa kill poor Mister Monkey's chimpanzee parents and his human owner, Mrs. Jimson. So Mister Monkey goes to New York City to live with the Jimson family. After Mr. Jimson's evil girlfriend Janice accuses Mister Monkey of stealing her wallet, our monkey hero goes on trial. He's acquitted by a clever lawyer named Portia, who says, "The quality of mercy is not strained - not even for a monkey!"
This echo of The Merchant of Venice is repeated about a half-dozen times. Another line that often recurs comes from a boy in the audience who asks his grandpa, "Are you interested in this?" I found myself asking a similar question.
When the fictional children's book is adapted for the stage, a clause is inserted in the contract that prohibits any mention during the play of evolution. That is Prose's wedge to insert talk about evolutionary biology and the evolution of a preadolescent boy. Prose tosses in some slapstick and a few funny, though predictable, comic scenes - but some of the alleged humor is questionable. You must be deep into schadenfreude to enjoy much of it.
Portia, played by a professional actress named Margot, is abused by Adam, a 12-year-old gymnast-actor who plays the monkey. He's an aggressive hormonal boy about the size of an 8-year-old who jumps up and grinds his groin into Margot's hip. I suppose there's some slapstick humor here. But the scene loses its comic value, because Margo believes she's being molested, but doesn't dare report the abuse because no one would believe her.
Another performer, Sonya, a part-time actress and teacher, learns that talking about evolution has a disastrous effect on a career if one of the kindergartners you're teaching is confused about evolution and you try to explain it to the class. It's a fairly serious scene, nicely told, with some intrinsic humor. But Prose later undercuts Sonya when she forces her, already worried about losing her job, to suffer the humiliation of an internet date that goes wrong. Her date, twice as good-looking as his online photo, gets drunk and writes a text message meant for his friend Nathan: "Dude, on the scale of one to 10, she's a 4." But instead of sending the text to Nathan, he sends it to Sonya, who is in the restroom. Maybe the misdirected text is an accident, but more probably not.
There could be a funny scene when she confronts him. But there is not. She's upset. Humiliated. She screams at him in front of a sympathetic audience of diners. Later, she'll take a Xanax, have nightmares, and worry about whether she still has a job in the morning.
Some readers won't mind the alleged humor. Some will enjoy it. Others will struggle through this book. Those strugglers might take their cue from the players, who try to get themselves through the bad play by doing it for the Fat Lady, a reference to J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, meaning to "act your heart out." I read my heart out, but I lost interest in this book, and I was waiting for a different fat lady to sing and the story to be over.
Joseph Peschel (joe@joseph peschel.com) is a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota. His blog is josephpeschel.com/HaveWords.